Where to see the whales through South Africa

South Africa is not only National Parks where you spot the most wanted “big five” or Nature Reserves where you hike in the middle of the lush nature or along the wild coast, but it’s also home of the biggest mammals of the world: the whales.

Every year, from July to December, the towns of Gansbaai and above all Hermanus are known as the capital of whale watching for Southern Right Whales, due to the sheer volumes of whales in the area of Walker Bay.

Southern Right Whale, Walker Bay
Southern Right Whale, Walker Bay

They are easily distinguished from others by the callosities (white growths) on their heads, a broad back without a dorsal fin, and a long arching mouth that begins above the eye. Right whales migrate to the bay and use their time here to mate, calve and raise their young till they are ready for the journey back.

From June to September you can also spot the Humpback Whales as they travel towards their breeding grounds in the warmer Indian Ocean of South Africa. These whales are named for the hump they have on their backs, and they grow between 12m to 16m in length and on average weigh an astounding 40 tons.

Their flippers can sometimes be as long as a third of their body length, explaining why they are so acrobatic. Bryde’s Whales live in this sea all year round. They have hooked dorsal fin located far down its back, and their tail fluke never breaks the surface. The whales are shy, elusive and very fast swimmers, therefore, spotting them it is not so easy.

Southern Right Whale, Walker Bay
Southern Right Whale, Walker Bay

Our Walker Bay whale watching safari

The boat trip starts from the Gansbaai New Harbor with Ivanhoe Sea Safaris, and we are very excited today because we’ ‘ve never seen before these giants of the sea swimming and posing in front of us and Walker Bay is the right place to enjoy the view.

Once ready, the crew give us information about the Marine Reserve, safety procedures and the behaviour to keep in case the whales come up to the boat.

We think “really?? Come up to the boat??”. It means we can see them very, very close! ‘’Do the whales come up to the boat? ‘’ we ask the crew. ‘’If we are lucky I think so’’  she replies.

‘’Ok then! I want to be extremely lucky and see the whales breaching out !‘’. Looking at me with a beaming smile, she says ‘’alright, me too!‘’

Today the ocean is quite flat, and the sun shines in the sky and 15 minutes we reach the first group of Southern right whales. They are a bit elusive keeping the distance from the speed boat.

They show us their colossal body just for a while before vanishing in the deep sea. ‘’No worry !‘’ say the crew, ‘’we are moving in another point where we know there is another group‘’.

Humpback whales, Walker Bay
Humpback whales, Walker Bay

Finally, the whales are close, and it is impressive to see a giant of the sea being so friendly and playful. They are playing together, rolling over and over and under each other, with their tails or flipper draped across their back.

While we are staring at this wonder of nature, a loud voice breaks the silence. ‘’Guys, unfortunately, our trip is over! It’s the time to come back, get your seat at the stern!’’.

The time flies, we would like to stay here all day long admiring these 14 meters and 50 tons colossuses “dancing” into the water like a butterfly. 

There is the chance to spot another group of Southern Right passing next to our boat, but we don’t know yet that our day will be fantastic living a moment that we’ll keep in our eyes forever.

On the way back, the captain spots a group of 3 whales playing in the water. They are not Southern Right but Humpback whales !! While our boat comes up the group, the big whales are tail-lobbing and splashing their flippers on the surface water with a loud noise.

Humpback whale, Walker Bay
Humpback whale, Walker Bay

Suddenly one of them breaches out of the deep sea with a roar, landing back with a massive crash into the sea. We are all impressed. It looks like a missile being launched from a submarine under the sea.

Our morning wish came true, and we have no words to describe our feelings while we look at this incredible view. The captain leaves the whales behind us heading to the Gansbaai Harbor while in our mind is stuck the image of this incredible wild animal, an exciting moment that we‘ll keep in our heart!

Humpback whale, Walker Bay
Humpback whale, Walker Bay

Need to know about the Whales watching tour

1. Gansbaai and Hermanus whales watching

The best option is to have a night stay in Gansbaai or Hermanus, but you can also arrange your daily trip from Cape Town. Just contact online a local tour operator (it’s plenty) and they‘ll pick you up and drop you off paying an extra fee. You could book once there as well asking your accommodation or through the boat company office but in the high season is always crowded, and you risk not to find a seat. Hermanus is 2 hrs drive from Cape Town, Gansbaai around 3 hours.

We had our boat trip with Ivanhoe Sea Safari in Gansbaai and with Whale Watchers in Hermanus. The average price for a 2 hours boat trip is around 800 Rand. You can also do in Gansbaai the “shark cage” boat trip, it takes you about 3 hours, and the average price is  1800 Rand.

Alternatively, you can book your Whales Watching Safari and the Shark Cage using the web platforms Viator or GetYourGuide.

2. Where to sleep

Hermanus and Gansbaai offer an excellent range of budget accommodations. We slept in Hermanus at Zoete Inval Traveller’s Lodge.

3. Where to eat

Along Marine drive in Hermanus (close to the Old Harbor), you’ll find many good restaurants. We have dinner at Fusion restaurant in Hermanus and the lunch at Boathouse restaurant in the harbour of Gansbaai. Click here to see all the restaurants in Hermanus and the customers’ reviews.

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